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USDA Inspectors' Role In Petaluma Slaughterhouse Recall Questioned

PETALUMA (KPIX 5) -- New questions are being raised about the role of federal inspectors in the recall of 9 million pounds of beef from a Sonoma County slaughterhouse. With USDA inspectors on site, how could a year's worth of beef have been contaminated?

Dr. Ernesto Lardizabal, known as Dr. Ernie, was the USDA's supervising veterinarian at Rancho Feeding Corporation in Petaluma, where the recalled beef was processed.

The recalled meat came from diseased cows that weren't properly inspected.  Yet the agency said the plant had a full staff of inspectors, with Lardizabal in charge.

On his Facebook page, Lardizabal has posted photos of awards for "protecting the public health" dating back to 2001.

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So how did that all that bad beef get by him?

"The inspection process seems to have broken down here," said Tony Corbo with Food and Water Watch.

Corbo said it's not just Rancho. "Leaving inspection personnel in the same facility for lengthy periods of time they become complacent and they start not catching things that should be caught," he said.

In Rancho's case, one inspector, Lynnette Thompson, did notice problems. In company documents obtained by KPIX5, Thompson is quoted as saying "most of the cull cows…have cancer and should be condemned."

She flagged that to her supervisors. But Rancho blamed her instead, saying condemning cows un-necessarily "slows down our production."

USDA officials even came by the slaughterhouse at least three times, to check things out.

They found nothing wrong, but transferred Thompson at management's request. "She was not fired, not disciplined, she was just sent to a different plant," said Corbo. "The USDA has a big responsibility here in terms of what happened."

As for Lynnette's supervisor, Lardizabal, he retired just two days before the recall was first announced. "It's suspicious," said Corbo.

So KPIX 5 went to talk to Dr. Ernie. "Why did you retire?" we asked him.

"Too much work," Lardizabal said.

KPIX 5: "The inspector (Thompson) is saying that you knowingly let these sick cows get slaughtered.  Did that happen?"

Lardizabal: "That's one-sided."

KPIX 5: "Nine million pounds of beef have been recalled. That was your job to oversee the inspections. How did it happen?"

Lardizabal: "I did my job."

The USDA isn't commenting on the investigation. Neither is the company. A criminal investigation against the company is now underway.

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